quiry in understanding commons institutions (e.g., Bromley, 1989; Ostrom, 1990). Rules, law, and governance are major institutions affecting human behavior. However, many social scientists see institutions as including not only rules but also norms and values (McCay and Jentoft, 1998; Scott, 1995), and at the very least as including both rules and the patterns of behavior that may or may not be shaped by rules and lead to changes in them (Leach et al., 1997). Accordingly, the emergence of institutions for the commons should include not only rules and governance systems but also new and changed patterns of behavior and norms and values. For example, changing perceptions of the environment or patterns of supply and demand can change human behavior on a fairly large scale without involving the social dynamics and political behavior involved in making and changing rules. Consequently, I assume a broader conception of institutions that includes patterned behavior as well as rules and that locates institutions as major features of the cultural, cognitive, and ecological realms within which acting and decision-making individuals and social groups are embedded.

In emphasizing the importance of “situation” and “context,” I join those who believe that a fuller and more satisfactory account would include the possibility of irrational and arational action and of motivations beyond narrowly pecuniary ones. It also would rely less on methodological individualism than the classic neo-institutional approaches do. Methodological individualism starts with the individual as the heuristic in understanding the behavior of groups. It frames “commons” questions as ones that are about the bases of cooperation or about how individual motivations and actions affect the collective. So far so good, but these frames also marginalize huge sets of phenomena that concern interrelations among collectivities as well as how the choices and actions of individuals are embedded in, influenced by, and constitutive of larger social and cultural phenomena (Peters, 1987). A more cultural and historical approach in human ecology sees “commons” questions as ones about competition and collaboration among social entities; the embeddedness of individual and social action; and the historical, political, sociocultural, and ecological specificity of human-environment interactions and institutions. It suspends or at least calls into question the methodological individualism that is associated with rational action models. In theory all institutions and social actions could be reduced to the individual level. However, reducing complex local situations and local and larger institutions to individuals is not always necessary or appropriate for adequate explanation, the requirements for which are contingent on the question being asked and the particulars of the phenomenon being studied.


In the first section of this chapter I focus on the assigned “emergence” question, using the notion of “situated choice” to underscore the importance of contexts and situations when attempting to explain the behavior of people faced with

The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement